U.S. comedian faces tough crowd on Middle East tour
Maz Jobrani is in a spot of trouble. His routines about Middle Easterners getting pulled aside by airport security for having Muslim-sounding names keep falling flat. Everyone he calls on in this Christian East Beirut nightclub is an “Eric,” “Johnny” or “Michelle.”
“Any Abdullahs here?” he pleads.
A drunken group holding a bachelorette party is making an unbearable ruckus, enraging others in the audience. And to top it all off, the bartender keeps refilling his glass of tequila, and he keeps drinking. Halfway through the show, the slightly inebriated Iranian American actor-comedian is getting a bit rattled.
“I’m telling you, Iran is like the Paris Hilton of countries,” he says. “It’s always doing something outrageous to get itself into the news.”
The audience roars with delight. Even the drunken bachelorettes are silenced momentarily as he finally connects with the crowd in a tour that has become a one-man attempt to bring Western-style stand-up comedy to the Middle East.
“It’s been important for me … to do these shows because it shows the world that the people of the Middle East are global citizens and appreciate laughter just like anyone else,” Jobrani says afterward. “It helps bring the East and West closer with laughter. Kind of a comedic diplomacy.”
The Iranian-born Jobrani, 38, grew up in Marin County, went to Berkeley for undergrad and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a graduate degree in political science at UCLA. He dropped out to pursue a career in entertainment.
His family pleaded with him to stay in school. His mom dreamed of him becoming a lawyer, and when she saw that he was dead set on showbiz, she urged him to at least learn how to repair cars as a backup plan.
“I said, ‘You went from lawyer to mechanic. What the hell happened?’ ” Jobrani recalls at lunch the day after the Beirut show.
Their worries subsided when he landed a part in the movie “The Interpreter,” starring Sean Penn, and when he began making appearances on ABC’s short-lived sitcom “Better Off Ted.”
Jobrani gained a measure of fame as a founder of the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour in 2007, in which comedians of Middle Eastern descent visited the region.
Before “Axis,” there were British comedians who would perform for expatriates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and American comics performing for U.S. troops. But he and his entourage were the first American comedians to perform for English-speaking locals.
“You never turn on the TV and see a United Airlines commercial with a Middle Eastern pilot,” Jobrani said in one routine during the “Axis” tour. “You never see me standing there like, ‘Come, fly the friendly skies.... I dare you.’ ”
This year, accompanied by wife Pretha Mani and their 2-year-old son, Jobrani toured solo through the Middle East, performing in Lebanon, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and, most provocatively, Saudi Arabia, where public space is tightly controlled.
“It’s genuine and intelligent humor, not clown-cheap,” says Nadine Farghal, a Lebanese lawyer who was at Jobrani’s Beirut show. “I like how he criticizes both Americans and Iranians in sharp and subtle ways, and puts light on how they both irrationally demonize each other in their media. Though it can look like nothing but innocent and light humor, some of his sketches have strong messages that can have an impact that goes further and gets to more people.”
There are ups and downs to touring in the Middle East. The shows are almost always sold out, partly because of the dearth of stand-up comedy in the region. But the tour isn’t any more lucrative than those in the United States, Jobrani says.
“People think they throw gold at you when you’re in the region, but that’s not the case,” he says.
Luckily, no cleric has issued a fatwa against him for off-color jokes about religion or sex.
“I’m trying to steer clear of fatwas,” he says. “I generally don’t speak about religion as much as I’ll make fun of politicians. If I have ever anything that even touches on religion, I’ll run it by the promoter or by locals.”
Usually the pitfalls are like what a blue-state comic might encounter in a red state. Someone doesn’t appreciate his irreverent manner. At a nightclub in Abu Dhabi he began teasing people at a table. A guy in a white dishdasha stood up and just started staring at him.
“The early show was people who came for the comedy, but the late-night show was people who wanted a nightclub,” Jobrani says. “And the table I was talking to, they didn’t want to talk.”
Jobrani brims with energy, even on the road after a hard night of performing and drinking in a hot smoky nightclub, his bald head glistening beneath the lights. Athletic in build, he juts, jerks and jumps on the stage, occasionally addressing audiences with a devilish grin. To silence one Beirut heckler, Jobrani tells him to toss him a peanut, which he catches with his mouth.
In Beirut, he begins his set by cracking jokes about the country’s crazy drivers and banks that offer loans for nose jobs.
“I don’t know how that works,” he jokes during his routine. “I don’t know if guys are going in saying, ‘I was going to remodel my house, but I’ve decided to remodel my wife.’ ”
And just like a New York joke might not cut it in Tampa, some routines don’t translate well between different countries in the Middle East.
For example, he tries a joke in Beirut about an Arab pronunciation quirk: “You know how Arabs say p’s as b’s?”
But unlike Arabs in the Persian Gulf or Egypt, who say and write “Bebsi Cola,” polyphonic Lebanese pride themselves on their pronunciation prowess, and protest.
“OK, OK,” Jobrani says, moving on quickly with a laugh.
It is another reminder that differences separate not just East from West but also countries within the Middle East.
Jobrani is intrigued and just a little nervous about doing a racy comedy show in one of the most religiously conservative nations on Earth.
A promoter has persuaded a member of the Saudi royal family to let them use a large piece of land an hour outside Riyadh, the capital, to perform.
“On the land he’s got a racetrack and an animal preserve, and that’s where we did it: in the animal preserve,” Jobrani says.
About 1,000 people show up, parking their cars at an empty lot and boarding buses for the 10-minute ride to the stage. But there aren’t enough buses. “So people started walking, which is like a 45-minute walk,” Jobrani says.
They sit down for the show, and it starts to rain. “It hadn’t rained in Riyadh for two years!” Jobrani says.
They eventually set up tents to shield the audience from the downpour, which delays the start for two hours.
Jobrani, already nervous, is sure the hassles will put everyone in a bad mood, another tough crowd he’ll have to whip up.
A few minutes into the show, Jobrani is talking about the heat in the Saudi cities of Jidda and Riyadh when some guys in the audience start blurting out a taboo word louder and louder, part of a game Saudi teens play in which each person repeats something a little louder than the last. Jobrani can barely make it out at first and tries to ignore it. But eventually he can’t.
“Vagina?” Jobrani asks. “Is that another city in Saudi? Is it also hot there?”
The audience laughs.
Jobrani gestures toward some VIPs in white dishdashas in the front row. “Oh, now I’m in real trouble,” he deadpans. “These guys are going to deport me.”
It’s a defining comic moment: Jobrani simultaneously breaks Saudi Arabia’s strict moral taboos, makes light of them and mocks his own fear. The audience whoops and shouts, laughing with delight into a desert night sky cooled by unexpected rains.